Addressing Fake News

Mark StoutMark J. Stout serves as coordinator of Advanced Placement & Secondary Social Studies for the Howard County Public School System (HCPSS). He holds a Ph.D. and M.Ed. in Curriculum & Instruction from the University of Maryland, College Park. He began his career as a middle school social studies teacher, and has worked as a resource teacher for social studies and as a facilitator for professional development. Here Stout blogs about the social studies teacher’s role in empowering students with strategic reading skills to determine credibility.  

“Some 82% of middle-schoolers couldn’t distinguish between an ad labeled ‘sponsored content’ and a real news story on a website, according to a Stanford University study of 7,804 students from middle school through college.”
— The Wall Street Journal, 2017

In this era of the 24-hour news cycle and the spread of information through social media, students are inundated with data. As evidenced by the quote from the Stanford study, many have difficulty determining which news sources are reliable. I am often asked to comment on how teachers help their students discern between fact and opinion when so much information is available. In this new era of “fake news” that has attracted the attention of so many Americans, social studies teachers work very purposefully to help students understand how to determine reliability and bias.

Our nation is built upon the notion that citizens should have opportunities for the free exchange of ideas. This was important to the framers of our Constitution, who considered a free press essential to our democracy. In an age where individuals consume media increasingly linked to their interests, it becomes easy to accept what they read as the truth. Whether it is the news programs they watch, the forwarded links from family and friends, or their social media feeds, we need to help our students dissect fact from opinion by questioning everything they hear, see or read.

Howard County social studies teachers are trained to teach students how to read text critically through historical reading and thinking skills. Instructional methods focus on developing deep historical understanding through the interpretation and analysis of the past using complex primary and secondary source documents. HCPSS curriculum is informed by two Teaching American History Grant Programs with the Center for History Education at University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), which built on work from the Stanford History Education Group to promote historical thinking.

The first step in this process involves what historians term “sourcing” the documents. Here, students ask questions such as: Who wrote this? When was this written? Why was it written? What type of source might this be (journal entry, letter, legal document, news article, etc.)? What is the author’s point of view? Is this source reliable? Does the author have anything to gain or lose?

Next, students conduct what is termed “close” or “critical” reading. In this stage, students determine what claims the author is making, if there is substantial evidence to support these claims and if the author is attempting to influence the reader through the use of language. After determining the authenticity of the sources, students then begin to look for other pieces of evidence to support the author’s claims. They can ask: Are there conflicting versions of the story? Which versions are more believable and why? By seeking multiple sources, students can make more reasoned decisions about what explanation is plausible.

In the final stage of the historical reading process, students learn to establish the historical context of the sources. This is perhaps the most challenging, as they need to see the story or event through the eyes of the people who lived in that time period. They can ask: What else was going on when this was written that might have influenced the author? What was different back then, and what was the same? Understanding context is critical to evaluating any account, whether in the past or the present.

Determining credibility is an acquired skill that can be applied through these processes of historical reading and thinking. Integrating the skills of reading like historians is now an expectation across social studies courses in HCPSS. It is imperative that students in our history and social studies classrooms understand these skills, so they can fulfill their roles as informed citizens.